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I began to understand the implications of the Sherpa dispersion when I trekked through a forest of birch and rhododendron at 11,400 feet (3,450 meters) to the quiet village of Thamo, a collection of four dozen rectangular homes perched like colorful Lego blocks on a steep slope about a 90-minute walk from Namche. It's hard to imagine a more dramatic place to live. Just to the east looms the majestic white pyramid of 18,901-foot (5,761-meter) Khumbila, to my eyes, the most beautiful peak in the whole Everest regionand one most sacred to Sherpas. Across a gorge to the west, a half dozen hundred-foot-high (30-meter-high) waterfalls crash down the cliff face to the rumbling Bhote Kosi river.
On a chilly, misty day in mid-September, nearly all the residents of Thamo are out in their fields harvesting the potato crop, pulling a year's sustenance from the soil. In a potato field down by the river I meet Pasang Namgyal Sherpa, a tiny figure with a latte brown face and wispy white hair that sticks out here and there from his red knit cap. Pasang, 74, introduces me to his wife, Da Lhamu, 73. The couple invite me in for Sherpa tea, an astringent brew made in a wooden churn with salt and melted yak butter. It's an acquired taste that I will never acquire, even though Da Lhamu hovers around me all afternoon with the teapot, repeating an insistent Sherpa phrase that obviously means "Drink up! Drink up!"
Their home is a classic Sherpa farmhouse. We step over a high wooden threshold into a gloomy first floor full of sacks and baskets holding potatoes, turnips, cornmeal, and a stack of drying yak dung, to be used as cooking fuel. Up a wooden staircaseso steep it is really a ladderwe come to a single long room, with benches around the walls for sitting or sleeping, and an open hearth in one corner that provides what little heat and light the house has to offer. There are two small lightbulbs in the ceiling, powered by a hydroelectric plant the Austrian government finished in 1995 as a foreign aid project a few miles upstream. But Pasang tells me he only uses them at night, which keeps the electricity bill down to about two dollars a month. The house has no clock, but it does have a calendar, nailed to a beam, indicating when the new moon and the full moon will come. On those two days each month, Pasang forgoes farmwork and stays in to read and chant scripture.
Pasang and Da Lhamu have about 12 teeth left between them, but their smiles gleam as they tell me their life storiesborn in Khumbu, married in Khumbu, farmed in Khumbuand proudly list their possessions. They have several terraced fields, totaling about four acres, plus three cows and three zopkios, a male yak-cow crossbreed. "I had 11 sheep too," Pasang says, "but I had to sell them because I'm getting too old to keep the dogs away from them."
"Well, if you're getting old," I ask, "who's going to take over this farm?" With that the cheery smiles disappear. The couple's son, it turns out, had taken
a job on a climbing team and died in an avalanche in the autumn of 2001. An exact number of how many Sherpa climbers have died on mountaineering expeditions is hard to come by, but by one estimate, 84 died from 1950 through mid-1989. Of the 175 climbers who have died on Everest, a third have been Sherpas. Most Sherpas probably have lost a friend or relative to a mountaineering accident. A few high-altitude porters stop climbing after a friend's death. But most see it as an inevitable hazard and go on, motivated by the money the job brings in.
Pasang and Da Lhamu's only surviving child is their daughter, Phuti. She married a fine man and had two beautiful children, Da Lhamu says, digging out the family photos. "But she's gone to Kathmandu. We won't see her back here."
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Amid the dusty bedlam of Kathmandu's heavily Buddhist Boudhanath neighborhood, where a cacophony of motorcycle engines, truck horns, rooster calls, police whistles, fruit hawkers, and chanting sidewalk monks fills the kerosene-laced air, I look up Pasang and Da Lhamu's 32-year-old daughter, Phuti, and her family in a four-room flat atop a row of small food stalls. The apartment house next door is about 24 inches (60 centimeters) from their window. There are probably more people living within 50 yards (40 meters) of their home than in the entire village of Thamo.
Phuti and her husband, Nuru Nawang, a Sherpa from Solu, serve me a cup of sweet milk tea and show me their place. They have a television set, a refrigerator and stove, a telephone (equipped with caller ID), an indoor toilet, and tile floors. The house has two clocks and the same calendar I had seen on the wooden beam in Thamo. Nuru, who studied to be a monk, says he would like to devote the days of the new and full moon to scripture readings, but his job as a trekking guide often makes that impossible.
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